Sharon is still the best choice
Wednesday, January 15, 2003
This was meant to be the most boring Israeli election in years. Israelis were said to be uninterested in the campaign and were voting with their remote controls by turning off the nightly hour of election ads produced by the various parties. Much of this voter fatigue was put down to the fact that this is Israel's third election in four years, not to mention it seemed a near certainty that the incumbent Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, would become the first Israeli leader to be re-elected since Yitzhak Shamir in 1988.
All this changed with the publication of corruption charges, first against the Likud party that Mr Sharon leads, and secondly against Mr. Sharon himself. The charge that the recent Likud primary elections contained many irregularities has already led to the sacking of one junior minister, and a police investigation that may lead to additional political casualties. The allegations against Mr. Sharon are also of a very serious nature. It is alleged he took money from a South African businessman, and these allegations are being investigated in both South Africa and Israel.
Since the first set of allegations centring on the Likud primaries became known, the Likud has been hemorrhaging votes at an alarming rate. Suddenly we have an electoral contest on our hands.
Interestingly, many disillusioned Likud voters are not shifting over to the Labour Party (the major opposition party), but rather to Shinui -- a party that promotes secular values that could become the third-largest party in Israel after the election scheduled for Jan. 28.
The Labour Party, however, which has been growing in confidence during the campaign, has started to focus its attacks on Mr. Sharon. This is a sure sign that it believes the Prime Minister remains vulnerable on the corruption issue.
Mr. Sharon has seen the polls, and heard the taunts from the Labour Party leadership. Last week, he adopted attack as the best form of defence against the charges. Unfortunately, his strategy backfired when the head of Israel's central elections committee pulled his press conference off the airwaves -- ruling that it was election propaganda, not affairs of the state. There are very tight rules in Israel governing what an incumbent prime minister can or can't do during a campaign. Prior to the plug being pulled, voters were treated to the spectre of their Prime Minister shouting accusations at Labour Party leader, Amram Mitzna, and protesting his innocence on the corruption charges. Many Israelis remain more concerned about the simple fact that Mr. Sharon "lost it" during the address, than the charges themselves.
Let us presume for a moment that normal service is resumed and that Mr. Sharon and the Likud emerge victorious on Jan. 28. The real problems for Mr. Sharon and the Middle East peace process start here. The investigation into the affairs of Mr. Sharon is likely to take months, even years, and he is going to be politically weakened until the inquiry is complete. Just at a time when it appeared that Israel was going to get a leader who was strong enough to push his understandably reluctant countrymen into negotiations with the Palestinians, the reality is that Israel will once more have a politically weak prime minister whose attention is distracted by events elsewhere.
Many Likudniks are acutely aware of this risk and there have been calls in recent days for Mr. Sharon to stand down before the election in favour of his fierce rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains popular with Israel's electorate, and more importantly, is not embroiled in any scandal. In truth, there appears little chance of Mr. Sharon doing this at present.
In terms of policy, the vast majority of Israelis continue to support Mr. Sharon's policy of no negotiations with Mr. Arafat yet refusing to rule out the possibility of a Palestinian state in the near future. If Mr. Sharon does fall, the real casualty will be the abandonment of the middle ground in Israel, with the choice left between the extremely dovish Labour Party and the hawkish Mr. Netanyahu. It would also see the chances of a new national unity government being formed after the elections recede. Most experts argue that Israel needs as broad-based a government as possible upon entering negotiations with the Palestinians.
Every Israeli election uncovers a surprise. This one appears to be no different and the consequences of the recent revelations are going to be felt well beyond the shores of Israel. Israeli voters, however, need to concentrate on the bigger picture and support the man they feel will be their best leader for the difficult years ahead. In short, vote for viable policies, not political cleanliness.
Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London.
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